The Ugly American

A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive; or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.

-William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American


The Peace Corps exists partly as an answer to the archetype of The Ugly American, brought to life so vividly and with such unswerving bluntness in the pages of the eponymous 1951 novel. However, even though Peace Corps volunteers are often the only non-host country nationals living in their immediate communities, even though our organizational and most of our personal goals are at direct odds with the caricature of the ostentatiously self-absorbed, ignorant American, I’m uncomfortable to admit that I at times see traces of this unflattering character reflected in myself.

A seldom-realized fact about the Peace Corps is that the typical volunteer spends a surprising amount of time out of site. We attend conferences, meetings, and workshops, and we accrue two days of vacation leave per month. In Peace Corps Zambia, this means that a typical volunteer will spend about a third of one’s service, or over 240 total days, out of his or her site during a two-year span.

I recently finished my Community Entry, the period in one’s Peace Corps service expressly intended to expedite a volunteer’s integration into his or her own community with explicit restrictions against leaving site. And yet since being posted to site I have spent ten days at the provincial house in Mansa for program days and my first four house days after Community Entry ended, two days in the next district over for a major cultural festival, eight days helping to host two different site visits for new volunteers, and parts of seven days visiting neighboring volunteers. And right now, I am currently on vacation at South Luangwa Park in Eastern Province where elephants and hippopotamuses have already been spotted from our campsite. None of this movement would cause any Peace Corps staff to raise an eyebrow out of impropriety, but combined I’ll have spent an entire month out of my community during my first four months of service.

And I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I behaved in the same manner regardless of where I am or who I’m with. When Peace Corps volunteers get together, we play music. Often loudly. We drink. Often excessively. We talk about food, poop, and sex. Often unconcernedly about whomever else might be listening.

This is partly because all of these things are destressors, and there is no shortage of stressors when you live in a village where you are constantly stared at, pointed at, laughed at, and called or whistled at. Where everybody else speaks a language you don’t have a hope of fully understanding, where nobody catches your corny Star Wars references. Where nobody can relate to being 10,000 miles away from your family and friends back home.

But it’s still no excuse. Regardless of reasons, I can’t help but feel a little guilty that the image I present when I’m with other volunteers is different than the one I project when I’m by myself in my village. Which do I feel best portrays America to Zambians? Which do I feel best portrays who I really am to myself?

I guess all I can do is try my best to be the not-so-ugly American and to be more consciously aware of how I am perceived. I can try to live modestly, to not isolate myself socially, to not be loud and ignorant, to not let my fear govern my actions. I can strive constantly to learn and listen and respect and love.

And within the confines of the provincial house, after business hours, when only other volunteers are around, I suppose I can cut myself some slack if I’m loud, obnoxious, oblivious to my surroundings, and socially insular. They’re Americans. They’ll understand.


4 thoughts on “The Ugly American

  1. As I read it again after 32 years, I was kind of proud of how the PC has followed the advice of this 1950’s book, which indeed, was seminal in the PC’s formation. Even the present day PC with ubiquitous internet and cellular has maintained a grass-roots approach that may be as distinctive as in the 60’s. Things like the Community Entry and motor vehicle prohibitions are even more strict than in my day.

    I say you are doing fine in presenting a non-“ugly” America to your hosts.

    This is an opportune time to note that the protagonist in the counterintuitively named chapter “The Ugly American” was ugly only in his unrefined dress and physicality (in contrast to the diplomats.) He was actually the model of what the ideal ambassador would be. And his equally unrefined wife practically stole the show in “The Bent Backs of Chang Dong,” a chapter that will not leave you a dry eye. It is this middle American spirit of friendly resourcefulness that the Authors, Kennedy, Shriver, et al were trying to capture.

    So it may not be the about the number of days or bottles spent with compatriots. It may be about
    the years you spend as one of the best of America plopped right in the center of a Zambian village.

  2. none of those goofy meetings back in my day…training…drop you off…done, and expected to work straight away….my how it has changed….its almost as if the work is secondary to “image promotion”….as to the terse statements about “the Ugly American”…I saw the difference between those of us who lived alone in the sticks and those who lived together in the big cities…going home to the compats, complaining in english and being bores…I and many fish people like me lived alone in small villages where the nearest pcv was 30-50 mile away so we had to either cope or go wishes Matt….dougb

    • Thanks Doug! This is actually Lumangwe Falls in Luapula Province, the second-largest waterfall in Zambia. It’s nicknamed Little Victoria though because of its similarity to the big falls.

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